"Fear is a Way of Life"

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Monday, January 27, 2003 at 11:07PM :

January 27, 2003
the Guardian/UK

Where the Young Learn That Fear is a Way of Life
The growing number of children traumatized by the threat of war

by Suzanne Goldenberg

Traffic snarled as it does on every other working morning. The football stadium filled up with raucous, cheering, trumpet-tooting supporters, and Saddam Hussein's eldest son blared out a blistering message of defiance.

But what everybody in Baghdad knew, and was often left unsaid, was that today could be judgment day. At around 9am New York time, well after twilight in Baghdad, the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, is to deliver his report on the progress of his efforts to unearth Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

And so Iraqis passed another day of anticipation yesterday in a curious mixture of resignation, anger and defiance. In Baghdad, a deceptive normality prevailed as people waited to learn their fate.

On Saturday, one of Saddam Hussein's most trusted advisers told a group of foreign journalists he believed Iraq had done all it could to prevent a war, and could do no more. The future was no longer in its hands. "One tends to think it is coming no matter what we do," said General Amer Saadi, who oversees the Iraqi side of the weapons inspections process.

Meanwhile, the Babel newspaper, which is run by President Saddam's eldest son, Uday, warned America its soldiers would die if war was declared. "The British and American troops will have no choice but to flee or meet the same fate that met their predecessors and that's to return home in plastic bags," it said.

Both sentiments co-exist in today's Iraq, but their fears go largely unspoken.

Among the members of one middle-class Baghdadi family, they have even developed a special language with which to discuss the war, without spelling out their fears. "My uncles and cousins have a code; they ask on the telephone: 'do we need Valium?'," says Reem, a translator.

The phrase is a convenience, a trick of the mind to deflect the horrors of what may come to pass because a third war in just over 20 years seems too horrific to contemplate.

Another branch of Reem's clan falls back on sarcasm, asking one another over the telephone if it is time for a jaunt to the family orchards - that is, seek refugee outside Baghdad in case a war is coming.

For many Iraqis, these last three months of tension have taken a real and visible toll. Doctors in Baghdad say they have seen an alarming rise in anxiety levels, and many patients are turning to tranquillizers and anti-depressants to help them face the uncertainties of the future.

"The level of anxiety and fear has definitely increased," says Dr Sirwan K Ali, a leading psychiatrist at Baghdad's main mental institution. "We feel a higher level of disappointment and fear, and thinking about the future in a gloomy way."

He and colleagues have prescribed growing numbers of patients with an array of medication to calm those fears. Some preparations such as diazepam, the generic term for Valium, are readily available. Others, such as Prozac, are only within reach of the wealthy who can obtain it from abroad for $30 for 14 tablets.

But the root causes of Iraqis' growing list of ailments often go unrecognized."Many patients complain about abdominal pain, or headaches, but there is no organic cause," says Dr Falah Mochabar at Baghdad's al-Mansour pediatric hospital. "There are many patients I send for general investigation, and I find no cause. There is just psychological and emotional stress."

The disorders Dr Mochabar charts at the hospital's outpatient clinic are disturbing: children grown listless, or detached from their families.

He has prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications for children as young as six or seven, though often he advises parents just to talk to their children.

On Baghdad's modern al-Maghreb thoroughfare, the proprietor of a large pharmacy says he has detected a similar trend: patients arriving with prescriptions for various dosages of diazepam, as well as anti-depressants for adults and children.

The signs of psychic frailty sit uneasily with the popular perception of an Iraqi people who are defiant and resolute, who withstood two punishing wars in a generation, against Iran and against America, and then rebuilt.

Dr Ali says that during war, Iraqis undergo a form of social cohesion, and that lesser psychic troubles become subsumed in the imperative of survival.

But the adult generation of Iraqis knows too well what a war could bring. So too do many teenagers who lived through the last Gulf war.

In 1998, when the US and Britain launched punitive air strikes against suspected Iraqi weapons facilities, Reem gave her daughter, who was then just entering her teens, the lowest dose of Valium. She is fully prepared for the eventuality that her daughter will go on medication once more, when the day comes. "I can still remember her a 12-year-old girl - and she was big - sitting on my lap and trembling," she says.

Others were too young to remember, but their fears are as vivid as if they had lived through those bombardments, according to a Norwegian child psychologist who yesterday released his findings as part of a larger study on Iraqi health.

Magne Raundalen interviewed about 100 children for the report by the International Study Team, and found that even pre-schoolers knew the vocabulary of war.

Some 62% of the children said thoughts of war intruded even when they tried to think of other things, and 83% said they had waves of strong feelings about the war: fear, as well as anger.

"One five-year-old said there would be cold and hot air, and we will burn from the bomb after it destroys our house," Mr Raundalen says.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

-- Sadie
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